eLearning Book Review: The Accidental Instructional Designer

Instructional designers and eLearning managers can learn something from Cammy Bean’s book

Here’s a question for the eLearning managers out there: How many members of your instructional design team got involved in the field by accident? As the demand for training within organizations, professional associations, industries, and businesses continues to outpace the supply of formally credentialed instructional designers, individuals with diverse backgrounds and skill sets are often recruited or incidentally assimilated into the professional ranks.

I’d venture to say that no two instructional designers start their career in the same way, but that’s OK! In fact, it’s part of why I was so excited to attend Cammy Bean’s keynote address at the recent Chicago eLearning Showcase. Cammy’s message fit well with the theme of her new book, The Accidental Instructional Designer: Learning Design for the Digital Age, which is an important read for both managers and instructional designers alike. I am promoting the book (despite considering Cammy a “frenemy”) because it represents the eLearning journey many of us have been on since the beginning of this century. The accidental aspect of our careers is symbolic of the life-long learning journey most adults should ready themselves for. In fact, those of us connected to new media have been required to learn new professions inside and outside the traditional schooling system. As Cammy notes in the opening chapter of her book, when you leave “the academy of instructional design,” you discover that “in practice, instructional designer is an umbrella term that covers a whole slew of people and jobs.”

The book takes on various topics from the perspective of project managers, subject matter experts, designers, writers, and other stakeholders whom are necessary to create eLearning products. Cammy focuses on four core skill sets eLearning initiatives need to draw upon to be successful. Using the concept of a pie, she explains the importance of learning theory, creativity, technology, and business acumen as part of a holistic model that puts the role of an instructional designer into perspective. Here’s my adaptation of her list of core skills (the pie metaphor stuck with me, so I felt compelled to use a circular treatment):

When one looks at their role in this context, they take total responsibility for the product. This is a refreshing attitude compared to old-fashioned instructional design curriculum where too much emphasis was placed on focusing on “needs analysis” and writing instructional objectives. While solid task analysis and pedagogy is important, it is not the only “design” consideration when technology and business goals are involved.

Cammy uses this approach as a launching point for a discussion of best practices in a variety of areas. Good intentions will only carry an instructional designer so far on any given eLearning project, so I was delighted to see her touch on each topic by identifying pressure points where instructional design mistakes can be made, and then offer solutions to help make sure best practices form the foundation any initiative. Even the fundamental elements of the profession are explained and explored with a practical message in mind. Cammy doesn’t mince words when discussing ADDIE on pg. 33 of her book:

“… there’s nothing special about ADDIE or even anything customized about it that helps you build better “instruction.” That’s because ADDIE isn’t a design model; it’s a project management model. It says, ‘Do these things in this order,’ while telling you nothing about how to make your project sing and dance and come alive. That’s why so many designers, especially those new to ISD, are sort of adrift. ADDIE is a big black box when it comes to the actual design part.”

On this point I will offer a quick response. This PM framework probably developed because far too many ISD people are required to act as a PM—corralling experts, programmers, project sponsors, etc. to meet deadlines. This is especially true in higher education, where department deans expect an instructional designer to actually have some clout over a professor. Whatever the context, we all struggle with the endeavor of dealing with the EXPERT, and I appreciate the coverage the book gives this subject. It’s nothing against subject matter experts and professors, of course. It’s just that they are often not paid enough (if at all), and if they are truly an expert they will not have the right amount of time to devote to your project. See my MindMeld book for tips on collaborating with experts.

Cammy’s book does a great job of providing practical tips on how to improve collaboration with the expert. Check: discuss the process and roles, establish yourself as an “ISD expert,” agree to a schedule (good luck with that one), make sure your deliverables are visual, and provide leadership by educating the expert on good design (context, chunking, concise). Double Check. Cammy’s list of questions to ask the expert should hang on all of our bulletin boards.

The cover of Cammy Bean's book, The book also covers the instructional design ABC’s quite well and provides the “digital age” perspective we so badly need. Her “Show-me, Try it, Test me” concept, although reminiscent of Horton’s eLearning by Design model (the learner Absorbs, Does, Connects), helps embed the basics to guide the designer and team. The book’s coverage of “finding a hook” and explaining the interactivity continuum is an outstanding overview using both ample theory and practice experience. Here we learn:

  • Avoid Bling for the sake of Bling
  • If the Bling motivates the learner … well, good
  • Make sure the activity makes the learner think
  • Encourage the learner to practice what they have learned
  • Use scenarios that put the learner in a context
  • Encourage reflection
  • Help the learner connect

Later chapters in the book focus on the need for good writing style and strong visuals. I appreciate the many examples Cammy shares from her real world experience as an instructional designer. She weaves her personal journey as an accidental instructional designer into every topic, which adds a nice personal touch and becomes a disarming device for anyone who might otherwise be intimidated to explore the field. She even covers the “Secret Handshake of Instructional Design” in Chapter 11 of the book and provides a list of important topics and theories to explore.

There are plenty of other little nuggets for eLearning managers, too. Have you ever thought to recommend the classic Attention, Interest, Desire, Action (AIDA) copywriting model to your ISD team? Have you ever explicitly warned your team to avoid the trap of “clicky-clicky bling-bling” interactivities? Or told members to see themselves as learning mixologists who look for the right blends of techniques and tools to support the needs of the client, rather than bartenders who pour out the same old pre-packaged e-learning over and over?

This would make a great textbook if the sub-title contained the word “on-demand” in it. I liked it so much I purchased a copy for our five instructional designers. There is an irony in Cammy’s sophisticated approach as she is well known for her conference sessions on Articulate, the tool that brought us mundane eLearning, but nevertheless this is a must-read book for anyone involved with creating on-demand eLearning modules. It serves as a good reminder that the journey of an instructional designer can start anywhere, but it never has to end.

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